TAMPA — He is today’s goaltender. Most people seem to agree on that.
On this day, in this moment, Andrei Vasilevskiy is the best goaltender in the world. He is a defending Stanley Cup champion and a favorite to win his second Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goalie. Even a majority of NHL players named him the league’s best in an annual poll this season.
But today is not enough. Vasilevskiy also wants to own tomorrow.
And that means beating yesterday’s goaltender.
Oh, what a Stanley Cup showdown we have here. Stats and seeds will tell you the Lightning are big favorites against the Montreal Canadiens, but the masked men in front of the nets have a different story to tell.
Montreal’s Carey Price is a former Vezina winner himself. He also won the NHL players poll in 2018. And ’19 and ’20. He has an Olympic gold medal in his trophy case and needs only a Stanley Cup to complete his resume.
Vegasinsider.com has Vasilevskiy, 26, as the favorite to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason’s MVP. Price, 33, is listed second.
“Vasy gives us a huge amount of confidence,” Lightning forward Alex Killorn said. “And I think it’s similar to the goalie on the other side.”
It is, in some ways, a throwback to fonder days when goaltenders ruled the ice. To Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy meeting in the Stanley Cup final in 2001. Or Ed Belfour and Dominik Hasek in ’99. Or Ken Dryden and Tony Esposito in ’71 and ’73.
“In order to be successful in this league, it always has to start with the goaltender,” Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos said. “I mean, just look at the two teams that are in the finals this year.”
Yes, let’s look at them. Montreal’s goaltender is 12-5 in the postseason with a .934 save percentage and a 2.02 goals-against average. Tampa Bay’s goaltender is 12-6 with a .936 save percentage and a 1.99 goals-against average. The last time two goaltenders finished a postseason with numbers better than that was in 2003, when Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils beat Anaheim’s Jean-Sebastien Giguere in seven games.
“We know what we have in our goaltender. We’ve watched him grow into the winner he is, the competitor he is,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “You don’t get to this level unless you’ve got great goaltending. Hence, why both goalie statistics are the same. Both teams are still playing, in large part, because both goalies have been great.”
The greatest difference could be the one thing neither Vasilevskiy nor Price can control: the players in front of them.
Montreal might be a defensive-oriented team, but the Lightning have been just as impressive keeping goals out of the net in this postseason. And the Lightning have a much more dynamic offense.
That’s probably why Price has gotten more attention — and shown up in more highlight reels — than Vasilevskiy in the past month. The Lightning have certainly relied on Vasilevskiy, and wouldn’t be in Game 1 without him, but the Canadiens probably don’t get out of the first round without Price.
“We’ve got great confidence in Vasy, just as Montreal has great confidence in Carey. I mean, they’re both world-class guys,” said Lightning forward Brayden Point. “Carey is just so calm in the net. You look at their playoffs, he’s made so many big saves for them. It’s going to be tough to get some by him. I don’t know if there is an edge one way or another, but both are extremely good and both tough to beat.
There is a legacy factor involved in this matchup. Price is a likely Hall of Famer, but finishing your career without holding the Stanley Cup inevitably changes the way fans and critics view a player.
Vasilevskiy already has his name on the Cup, but he does not yet have the weight or history of Price’s career. Beating him head-to-head would allow Vasilevskiy to stake his claim as the best goaltender of a generation.
“Carey is one of the best goalies in the NHL. It will take lots of effort to beat him,” Vasilevskiy said. “Obviously, it’s a big personal challenge as well for myself. That’s the game of hockey. You’ve got to beat the guy on the other side. You have to be better than him. So I’ll give it my best, I hope, and do whatever I can to beat him.
“As I said, it’s a big challenge. It’ll be interesting for the fans, for the experts, for everybody.”
There will likely be 40 or more other guys who play a role on the ice in determining the 2021 Stanley Cup champion. Point is the postseason’s top scorer and Nikita Kucherov is the points leader. Victor Hedman won the Conn Smythe last season, and Corey Perry is attempting to win a Cup 14 years after winning his first. Montreal is attempting to win a record 25th Cup and its first since 1993. The Lightning will try to become the first back-to-back winners since 2016-17.
There will be no shortage of storylines in the coming days.
But one thing you can be sure about:
If Andrei Vasilevskiy outperforms Carey Price, the Lightning will lift the Stanley Cup again.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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